I’m spent this weekend in Denver, attending the second Evolving Faith conference being held in the hockey arena of the University of Denver (which I’m pretty sure is considered sacred space). The conference is the brainchild of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. After Rachel’s tragic death this past Spring, it seemed more important than ever to attend especially when the conference fell during our Fall Break. Plus, our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter live in Denver and it gave us an opportunity to visit while I attended the conference.
Meeting in a hockey stadium is a little less intimate than the gathering in the Montreat auditorium last year. Everyone is pretty far way but the messages seemed to resonate with those present.
I have no data to back this up, but the crowd was larger this year and seemed more diverse in terms of age (but still mostly female and white).
The conference opened, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of Rachel’s loss. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu shared their thoughts. Then Rachel’s husband, Dan, shared his own reflections. He reminded us that Rachel’s writing mantra was “Be Honest, Be Yourself, Be Kind” and then read a passage from her final book which will come out next year.
The first session of the morning was on what it means to be in the wilderness. Sarah Bessey, Eric Barreto, and Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of their own journeys of displacement. Living outside the dynamics of imposed structures is a characteristic of the wilderness journey. Barbara Brown Taylor pointed out how much Jesus didn’t just encourage the wilderness living, he dragged his disciples into danger. It takes deep faith to move beyond the comfortable structures of religious institutions.
It struck me that this may be a common perspective for Evolving Faith folks. Their past religious lives haven’t provided the space to ask questions are take a more complicated, ambiguous, deconstructed view of faith. As frightening as the wilderness is, it appears more authentic than quietly going through church motions.
The second session was on scripture. Pete Enns unpacked the story of Nicodemus in John 3 to illustrate that Nicodemus needs a new perspective, as radical as being physically born again. Pete went on to talk about his own journey and ended with a wonderful analysis of left brain/right brain approaches to faith. While he can do all kinds of deconstruction in the left brain, there is a source of assurance (he didn’t use this term but I’m making the Wesley reference) that shows up in the right brain. Area UMC pastor Jasper Peters filled in for Renita Weems and offered a fascinating re-interpretation on the authority of scripture. Because authority is often used to buttress other power and institutional claims, he affirms instead the power of the scripture in terms of impacting one’s life. This sentiment was underscored by the three speakers as they debriefed the session.
The first afternoon session revolved around themes of life’s struggles and how faith is impacted. Tanya Marlow described her multiple health challenges and how all attempts at theodicy failed. In time, she drew solace in knowing that God was part of her story and she was part of God’s. It wasn’t healing but it was faith affirming in small ways. Blogger and podcaster B. T. Harman described his journey of coming out as a thirty-year-old Southern Baptist. He described how his personal story and the political moment combined to interfere with his art and his faith. He described how he had settled on a discipline of gratitude, giving people space to be who they were, and appreciation as a means of restoring balance. Reflecting on Miriam’s song in Exodus, Cece Jones-Davis reflected on the need to know the key refrains. In the midst of transition, it is important to know what to hang on to and remember that “what the Lord requires also requires the Lord.” The conversation that followed invited the three speakers to reflect on what they hold on to from their more structured religious upbringing. All looked fondly upon those early years for what it contributed to their current journey. A similar question was asked last year with some pushback from those in attendance.
The final set of speakers spoke to important sociological issues of race, decolonization, and structures of assumed power. William Matthews used horror films to describe how we are told the dread that is before us and especially addressed this in terms of racial power dynamics. Listening to the powerless would provide a clearer sense of the challenges that are just around the corner. Kaitlin Cortice spoke of her Potawatami roots through her father’s side and what she has learned about re-appropriating a cultural identity that was taken from her when she was young. She said that American culture prides itself in being a toxic empire. I found this a helpful way to tell the story rather than focusing on individual expressions. Chaneque Walker-Barnes shared her journey of trying to “fit” into a variety of local church expressions that never quite worked. She raised the question of why congregations expected her to shave parts of herself off in order to fit in, deciding instead to take a sabbatical from church to figure out how she worshipped and what part she played before trying to return. In the summary conversation, Jeff Chu pushed the speakers to address the big challenge of the event: we were an overwhelmingly white group meeting at an overly white campus in an overly white city. This in turn led to an important conversation about the ways in which white liberal progressive churches fall well short in terms of addressing structural (rather than personal) issues of race, politics, and justice.
Day one ended with a “grief and lament” service that included Rachel’s sister, Amanda. I didn’t attend since I’m went to dinner with the family.
The second day opened with devotions, Matthew Paul Turner reading his children’s book, and singing “Spirit in the Sky”. Then we split up among varied breakout sessions.
I attended a live taping of the podcast “Pantsuits and Politics“. Hosts Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland explored the challenges of the Ukraine/impeachment conversations and then moved on to other topics. Much of the hour was spent on discussions of the #MeToo movement, Weinstein, Kavenaugh, and the church. They addressed importance of hearing womens’ stories, but especially those stories told TO women. The immorality and capitalist assumptions of non-discloure agreements that force women to deny their trauma while protecting the powers and structures that sustained the abuse in the first place. The challenges of pushing back on dominant political narratives for those who see politics differently was also a major theme. If you listen to the podcast when it comes out, you can hear me asking a questions about Trump’s claim of a Third Great Awakening and why Franklin Graham supporters in North Carolina supporting the president isn’t news.
The second breakout session I attended was on the enneagram, which is a big deal among young religious folks. Mickey ScottBey Jones led the session describing exactly what she jokingly called “this cult” is all about. I hung out for awhile and even retook an enneagram quiz online (it’s says I’m a 5; last time I was a 3) but I really can’t get into the whole idea.
Over the lunch break, I had a great conversation with Roxanne Stone, now managing editor of Religion News Service and formerly with the Barna group. She was very kind in listening to my ramblings about my book project, evangelicalism, and evolving faith. Watch for an Evolving Faith report from Roxanne in coming days.
The afternoon session was focused on personal testimonies of faith journeys. Musician Jennifer Knapp shared her coming out story and discussed the realities of having people react to her. Jen Hatmaker spoke on Jesus’ parable of the good fruit and bad fruit as part of telling her story of evolving faith (it was very interesting to compare it to last year’s testimony). She spoke at length about the ways in which the religious power structures made the Gospel mostly about themselves and justified the exclusion of others. She called it one of the greatest examples of “gaslighting” to have the bad fruit (LGBTQ exclusion, abuse, celebrity, power) called “good” in the process. Lisa Sharon Harper spoke at length about the centrality of the Image of God throughout our Christian history. The problems of exclusion and dismissal are based on the denial of that central image. Jess Chu wrapped things up with a reflection on water. He opened by describing the morning mists at the Princeton farminary and how moving it was to see things come clear. Drawing from Ezekiel, he described how that fresh water is central to the renewal of all life. He connected that renewal to Ezekiel and the dry bones being given new life.
Sarah Bessey closed out the session by discussing the status of Evolving Faith itself. There was a period after Rachel’s death that she and others thought that maybe they couldn’t go on. But they prayed and talked and realized that there was a need for this group. There is now a mission statement and a set of core values. The 2020 conference has been scheduled for Houston.
The conference closed with communion, with Nadia Bolz-Weber giving the sermon. I left early as I had on Friday so I could have dinner with the family.
So here’s my takeaway. This year’s conference felt different. Some of that was to be expected: Rachel was gone, we were in a hockey arena, the crowd was bigger and slightly older. But the real difference was in tone. Last year the message seemed to be “you’ve left your prior church experience and it’s going to be okay here in the wilderness.” This year still gave permission for people to doubt or question, but it had for me a sense of movement. It was more like “you’re out here in the wilderness and it’s time to do the work to figure out where the path leads.” There is work to be done.
I told a few people about this outlandish prediction I made five years ago. I had argued that there was a coming convergence between progressive evangelicals rethinking boundaries and theologically grounded mainliners seeking to connect their faith in Jesus to a complex culture. Here is how I ended that piece:
I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.
This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.
I can’t say that my prediction was coming to pass in that hockey stadium in Denver, but I could begin to catch the glimmers of it in the mist that Jeff Chu described. Something is happening here and it seems to say a lot about the future of faith in America after we’re done with the politics of the current moment.